Monday, August 17, 2009

The Road Not Taken

In a recession, it's natural to look back at your career and think, did I make the right choices along the way? What if events had transpired differently? I've started thinking back on some of the situations that have had the most impact on my career. Today, they're clearly inflection points from which two different possible sequences of events flow. I didn't know that term in the 70s; I only knew the Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken," in which two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

My first magazine job out of college was with a company called the American Adventurers Association. The entrepreneur who founded it essentially wanted his own National Geographic Society, choosing to ignore that there already was a National Geographic Society. (The backstory of how I came to be in Seattle and got that job represents a whole different set of inflection points.) The AAA published a bi-monthly magazine on adventure travel and an annual guidebook listing adventurous trips -- river rafting, ballooning, mountain climbing. Only rarely did the staff actually get to engage in any of these activities.

It was a lush magazine, published nevertheless on a shoestring (most of us were paid $3 per hour in the beginning). My responsibilities encompassed acting as an assistant in every department -- editorial, circulation, administration -- and after three years at the magazine, I had a wholly inflated sense of my potential in the publishing industry. Growing up in Palo Alto and going to Stanford will do that to you.

Thinking anything was possible, I planned my next move: getting an ever-so-fashionable master's degree in business administration. After that, I would move to New York and use my soon-to-be-acquired business acumen and my recently acquired editorial experience to become a publisher. Isn't youthful enthusiasm intoxicating?

Of the ten graduate schools I applied to, only Cornell accepted me (this should have been a tip-off as to what was coming). As it happened, the Cornell curriculum of statistics, economics, and accounting was far more quantitative than the average English major could fathom, and it was especially difficult for one who was used to blissfully skating through life without working too hard. For the first time in my life, I had a report card full of Cs and Ds.

Before the beginning of the second semester, I was ordered to appear before the Academic Standards Committee. Outside, snowflakes gently floated down. Inside, my plans were harsly batted down. The three dour professors on the committee informed me that because what was taught in the first semester formed the foundation for the three semesters that followed, and I had clearly not grasped those fundamentals, I would not be allowed to re-register. Ever since, I've blithely said that if you're going to get thrown out of somewhere, make it someplace classy like the Ivy League.

I went back to California, drank a few years away, and eventually started writing about technology. I was writing for a McGraw-Hill publication when I had a meeting with an executive who actually had gotten a Cornell MBA. I mentioned in passing that I had been kicked out of that program. He replied immediately with a riposte I have never forgotten: "And look how it's ruined your life."

He was right, of course, and now, twenty years later, that executive's remark is even more prescient. If I had been able to stick to my original plan, I would now be sitting in Manhattan among the rubble of the publishing industry, scrambling to find perhaps the last in a string of non-existent jobs in a diminishing world. The Web is rewriting the rules of everything printed without offering insights to the future -- just as strikingly as the Academic Standards Committee rewrote my plans and fogged up my future.

But I was able to come back to the land of innovation and sunshine and ride the rise of the personal computer, the Internet, and corporate networks into a wonderfully fulfilling career. The end of my Cornellian dreams, the road involuntarily taken, has indeed made all the difference.

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